Most people never think about their gallbladder, or about its role in the human body. The gallbladder typically does its job each day without your knowledge. But for those who have a gallstone attack, the pain is usually so severe that it cannot be ignored.
The gallbladder is a small organ underneath your liver on your right side. It stores bile that is produced by the liver. After you eat, the gallbladder contracts and secretes bile into your intestines to aid in digestion. Sometimes a buildup of certain substances in the bile causes the formation gallstones. About one million new cases of gallstones are diagnosed each year in the US.
How gallstones form
If your bile contains too much cholesterol, you may get cholesterol gallstones (about 80 percent of gallstones are cholesterol gallstones). Cholesterol gallstones sometimes form without a clear cause.
There are, however, some known risk factors that can increase your risk of developing these stones:
- Family history of gallstones
- Being a female and over 40 years of age
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Rapid weight loss, i.e. “crash dieting”
- Taking cholesterol-lowering medications
- Having a gallbladder that does not contract well or empty completely
These factors increase the chance that your bile will contain elevated levels of cholesterol, leading to stones in the gallbladder.
People with certain health conditions such as sickle cell anemia and liver disease may get another, less common form of gallstones called pigment gallstones.
Symptoms of gallstones
Gallstones can range in size from tiny, pebble-sized stones to the size of a golf ball. Many people may live with gallstones for years and never have symptoms. These “silent gallstones” do not need to be removed. But when gallstones start causing symptoms, they almost always need to be treated.
- A gallstone “attack” will typically include some of the following symptoms:
- Severe pain on the right side of the abdomen
- Severe pain on the right side of the back and/or right shoulder
- Nausea, vomiting, and/or sweating
- Jaundice (yellowing) of the skin or whites of the eyes
It is believed that pain from a gallstone attack is caused by blockage of the gallstone’s duct, which can cause the gallbladder to become inflamed. This is known as acute cholecystitis. If it is not treated, the gallbladder can become infected, leading to serious illness. If the stones become lodged in a main bile duct, the duct and the pancreas could also become infected or inflamed. This is an extremely dangerous complication that requires emergency care.
If you think you are having a gallstone attack, have someone drive you to the nearest emergency room or call 911. A physician will evaluate your symptoms and possibly perform a blood test and/or certain scans to determine the cause of your pain. If gallstones are the culprit, antibiotics and surgery are usually necessary.
When surgery is recommended, more than 90 percent of patients can have a minimally invasive gallbladder removal. This is known as laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Because the incisions are small, most patients go home the next day and are back to normal activities within a few days. This is the preferred method of gallstone removal for patients without other complications, and typically has an excellent outcome.
If the scans show that a stone is in the bile duct, your gastroenterologist may perform a procedure using an endoscope called an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This allows your physician to move the stone out of the bile duct and into the intestine, where it can safely leave the body.
CarePoint Health provides patients with care delivered by the area’s best and most dedicated doctors, nurses, hospitals and medical staff, with focus on preventive medicine, health care education, and disease management. To learn more about gastrointestinal health, contact CarePoint Health at 1-877-791-7000 or request an appointment online at our website.
Content on our website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911. Always consult your physician before making any changes to your medical treatment.